Propane Co. cited by OSHA in explosion
March 14, 2003, an explosion and fire was triggered by the illegal transfer of LPG from one truck to another in Newton, NJ (Sussex Co.). The tragedy caused extensive damage to several buildings and caused the area to be evacuated for several days. The following is an investigative report published today that will make your hair stand on end.
Newton blast: anatomy of disaster
By Tim O'Reiley, Daily Record
More than a year before the 2003 propane explosion and fire that destroyed Able Energy Co.'s yard in Newton, president Christopher P. Westad had grown edgy about safety.
Several times, he urged chairman and chief executive Timothy Harrington to hurry the construction of a permanent station rather than continue the procedure, forbidden by state law, of filling propane delivery trucks from larger tankers.
"(W)e needed to accelerate the process as much as possible in getting a fixed facility, because I thought that that was, by its very nature, safer and a safer type of liquid transfer operation than what we were doing," Westad told federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigators in July.
Despite follow-up calls to the company's lawyer to expedite the zoning process, Able's plan to install permanent propane tanks at its fuel oil yard in Rockaway Township was vetoed by town officials. Other sites fell through as well. Newton continued as the ad hoc propane hub until a driver pulled out of the yard with his delivery truck, known as a bobtail, still connected to filler hoses, causing the leak that precipitated the inferno last March 14.
Harrington later steered the blame to what he termed "stupidity" by the driver, but OSHA documents obtained by the Daily Record through the Freedom of Information Act, including a transcript of Westad's testimony, detailed an operation marked by an array of safety lapses and shortcuts. OSHA fined Able $16,000 for eight safety violations termed "serious," second worst to "willful" on the agency's scale of severity, in a settlement that spared the company from admitting any guilt.
Based on the OSHA documents and its own examination, New Jersey's Department of Community Affairs, which regulates the propane industry, levied $414,000 in fines and sued to force Able out of the propane business. The legal pressure led to a settlement two weeks ago in which Able agreed to divest its propane division and pay the state $25,000, again without admitting guilt to any safety infractions.
In addition, Harrington accepted a permanent ban on any ownership or management position in a New Jersey propane business, except for owning as much as 10 percent of a propane company's stock, while Westad will be barred for three years.
OSHA's final report, signed by Westad on Sept. 30 but not made public, reconstructed the accident and many of Able's practices leading up to it that previously were not disclosed. The citations and findings included:
n Testimony that several employees smoked in the area where the truck-to-truck filling took place - including the driver of the ill-fated bobtail just minutes before the blast - but were not disciplined beyond reminders to stop. Driver John Baer's cigarette was listed as one of two likely triggers for the explosion, although OSHA did not try to determine the exact cause. (Baer's name was excised from the report under Freedom of Information Act rules, but he has been identified by state documents.)
n Able let trucks broach the 50-foot perimeter legally required around "important" buildings, where people were working. That's a critical point because a furnace pilot light in one of the buildings was mentioned by OSHA as the other suspected ignition point. State investigators estimated that the truck was only eight to 10 feet from the pilot light at the time of the explosion.
n On several occasions, including March 14, drivers left the immediate vicinity of their bobtails during filling. At least one driver is required to stay close to his vehicle in order to quickly close valves in the event of leaks, yet the company took no disciplinary action. As a matter of routine, no one manned the tanker truck, either.
n Able had an emergency plan to deal with fuel oil spills but nothing for propane leaks. OSHA requires companies to draw up emergency response plans. One Able manager testified that the company had an evacuation plan, but other employees told OSHA they never conducted any drills or even knew what the plan was. No training on when or how to use fire extinguishers had been conducted at least 18 months prior to the blast.
n While employed as a driver at Eastern Propane in Oak Ridge section of Jefferson, Baer committed the same mistake of pulling away in his delivery truck with a filler hose still attached. Despite the resulting leak, Eastern's safety hardware worked as designed so that there was no explosion. Baer was later fired by Eastern for this and other safety mistakes, according to OSHA, before going to work at Able.
n In general, the Newton yard was deemed unsafe because truck-to-truck propane loading violated New Jersey regulations. According to testimony transcripts of Harrington; Westad, who was in charge of the propane division; and John Smalley, the operations manager of the Newton yard, nobody knew how the practice started or who ordered it. But truck-to-truck transfers at Newton were described as more convenient for customers than driving bobtails to distant fixed stations, while saving the company time.
However, the state did not catch any of the problems prior to the explosion, department spokesman E.J. Miranda said, "because Able deliberately concealed their activities," particularly the "illegal truck-to-truck transfers."
In a statement, chief operating officer John Vrabel noted that the OSHA report had not found any "willful" violations, where the company deliberately broke the law.
Further, he said, "OSHA convincingly demonstrated the thoroughness of their work and their conclusions" during the six-month probe. He declined to comment on individual items, saying that "it would be inappropriate on my part, or (the Daily Record's), to attempt to selectively isolate comments and draw conclusions outside of the context of the entire OSHA investigation."
Vrabel in the past disputed the impression Able had neglected safety. The fact that all employees got out of the yard without serious injury and called local authorities to the looming problem showed that Able did have an effective evacuation plan, he said. Residents and customers at businesses along Diller Avenue, where the yard was located, also escaped unscathed despite numerous blown out windows and other minor structural damage.
Another propane-filled bobtail caught fire in the explosion and was allowed to burn itself out over five days. About 1,000 residents were evacuated from the immediate area for about a week.
In the past, company managers have said they put bobtail keys on large rings and required drivers to slip those rings over a nozzle and hose during propane filling. This technique, used by others such as Hanover-based Suburban Propane, makes it impossible to start a bobtail and drive it off until the hose is disconnected and the key ring removed. However, they said, Baer neglected to put the ring over the hose on March 14.
Terry Boyer, the president of the consulting firm, Boyer Safety Services Inc. in Port Charlotte, Fla., rode with all the drivers at least once after March 14 and with several of them on multiple occasions. Called in April to conduct training sessions and later retained by a Mercer County Superior Court judge to oversee Able's propane business, Boyer found a mixed bag.
"They lacked the formal written program that you typically like to see," said Boyer, who returned to Florida in November. "But I found the drivers were well-qualified and trained, as well as any in the industry that I have looked at."
At one point during his July 17 testimony, Harrington complained that some regulators had embarked on "a little bit of a witch hunt" aimed at Able. "(W)e not only complied with every state and local inspector that had come and approached us … we are an oil business, so we are under scrutiny by everybody."
Later, he added, "We are not running a ham-and-egg operation."
Vrabel added in his statement that six of the violations found by OSHA have been corrected and the company had until Oct. 30 to correct the other two. He did not say whether that deadline was met.
Jay Johnston, an independent safety consultant in Hopkins, Minn., who reviewed the OSHA report, said that Able's conduct was "extremely untypical. The whole industry just flinched when (the explosion) happened because, when someone grossly defies the rules and it results in something like this, it gives a black eye to the industry."
In answering a question about why the company never wrote an operations manual, considered a necessity in the propane business, Westad revealed some of Able's approach to Newton.
"I believe, because of the temporary nature of the (Newton) operation when it was originally put in place, it was never designed to be a permanent type of operation that it ended up being. … We just didn't deem that we needed to put the SOP (standard operating procedures) together," he said.
When asked who made that call, he replied, "I don't know."
Although primarily a fuel oil distributor - propane accounted for just 6.2 percent of the company's $46.3 million in sales during the fiscal year ended last June 30 - Able diversified into propane in 1996 as Harrington sought to tap into a new revenue stream related to its core product, a typical corporate strategy.
As early as 1998, Able filed financial statements with the Securities and Exchange Commission that mentioned its desire to lease or build its own propane yard with permanent tanks to store up to 30,000 gallons. New Jersey regulations favor that type of facility because it can be outfitted with various safety devices, such as heavy crash posts, much like those protecting pumps at gasoline stations.
Harrington, in his testimony to OSHA, said he turned the propane reins over Westad in 1996. Westad had spent five years as a market manager in charge of three, and later nine, locations for Ferrellgas Partners, a large propane company, after working 14 years at RJR Nabisco in several management positions.
"I wasn't responsible for running the propane business," Harrington said. "Chris Westad was originally hired for that and still, to this day, I am not involved with that division."
For example, when OSHA investigators asked about setting mechanical standards and procedures, Harrington replied, "I wouldn't know anything about that."
At Ferrellgas, Westad said he had undergone two weeks of in-house training for a market manager that covered propane handling, running the business and safety. However, he added, Ferrellgas did not go over truck-to-truck propane loading, the method Able used.
Able, at one time, looked at four different site for a permanent station, including Frankford Township in Sussex County and White Township in Warren County. It approached Howmet Castings about using tanks already at its plant in Rockaway Township as recently as late last year, according to a Howmet manager.
Rockaway Towship officials ordered Able to stop propane operations at the company's fuel oil yard on Route 46, but it was not clear from Westad's testimony whether that order covered truck-to-truck loading or just storage. The town also denied permission for anything at the site related to propane except parts storage and empty tanks.
Perhaps late in the summer of 2000 - Westad's memory was not precise - he said he took a few days off "and I came back and it (truck-to-truck loading) was under way."
"I honestly don't know whose idea it was," he added.
Harrington said he was not involved in the decision. Smalley, the operations manager, also said he did not know who approved it.
Some employees testified that it may have gone on somewhat longer than that, according to OSHA, although no firm timeline was drawn up.
The operations could have run legally by sending bobtails to stations in Newark or eastern Pennsylvania. However, Westad said, "(T)here was a concern as to the amount of time that it was taking to go to the fixed storage facilities in Pennsylvania and Newark."
Instead, it made more logistical sense to fill the larger tanker truck, holding 8,660 gallons, at either location and then drive it to Newton to feed the bobtails, which hold 2,300 to 3,000 gallons.
Smalley, a veteran of fuel oil sales, told OSHA he had no background or training in propane, and was not even aware there was a Department of Community Affairs to enforce regulations. Neither did he nor Westad ever check to determine whether the Newton operation conformed to the National Fire Protection Association section that sets the industry standard for handling propane.
Nevertheless, Newton dispatcher Donna Snook told OSHA investigators that she would order any tanker or bobtails out of the yard if government inspectors showed up and keep them away until the inspectors left.
Although the company has said it had a training program for its drivers, Westad did not look into it personally. Instead, after talking to a couple of senior drivers, he felt comfortable enough with their knowledge and competence that he did not check out everyone.
One area to which Westad paid close attention was the installation of customers' storage tanks and their filling.
"Most of our exposure, I felt, was at the homes," he said.
On April 12, barely a month after the explosion had exposed the illicit truck-to-truck loading, the problem cropped up again between two Able bobtails in Andover. Westad recalled getting a phone call at home on a Saturday morning from a "screaming" Harrington.
"He was incoherent, to the point I couldn't understand. I had to ask him to calm down," Westad said.
The driver involved was fired, and the company retained Boyer to ultimately reorganize its safety structure. Still, the company's history and subsequent alleged safety violations cited by the state convinced the department to push ahead with the rare action of trying to shut down Able's propane business in New Jersey.
The company still has a propane yard in Warrensburg, N.Y., near Lake George.